Sunday, December 30, 2012

On Woody Allen

Whether Woody Allen is considered an auteur of genius and the American Ingmar Bergman, or an overage sophomore aping a director who is pretty overrated himself, doesn't really matter. However Allen is thought of, it is inevitably in this context.

So it's surprising for many people to learn Allen was once a very different sort of icon.

It's interesting to realize the "Woody Allen" persona barely goes back 50 years. Of course there had been aspects of it before, even in standup comedy: the nebbish (Shelley Berman), the Jewish intellectual (Mort Sahl), the failure with women (just about anybody). But no one had ever really combined these characteristics into one character.

Allen started out fairly typically, hustling gags to newspaper columnists as a teenager and eventually writing for performers with whom he seemingly had little in common (Pat Boone?). His early work was notable for two things: the sheer brilliance of some his material, earning him the nickname "The Young Larry Gelbart" (a legendary comedy writer who was only in his early 30s himself -- when Allen was introduced to him with that epithet, Gelbart replied testily, "What are you talking about? The young Larry Gelbart is HERE") and his fondness for inserting upscale cultural references into his work: in an "American Bandstand" spoof written for an Art Carney special, a record is played by a new rock band, "The Sisters Karamazov".

Urged to become a performer by his managers, Allen resisted, not only because of stage fright but also due to a not so vague contempt for the entire world of glitzy show biz. But Allen gave in and took to the nightclub stage, stumbling along, isolated gags in search of a character -- getting by on the quality of his jokes, but despising what he was doing, and himself for doing it.

Then came the brainstorm. Allen would merge two apparently unmergable comic icons -- his literary
model (S.J. Perelman) with his standup hero (Bob Hope). This gave Allen the best of all possible worlds.  He could be his Jewish intellectual self, sprinkling his routines with the references to Freud and philosophy that were so dear to him, while Hope's cowardly schlemiel would humanize the character enough for audience empathy.

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